Heinz-Christian Strache, who led the anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPO) to third place in last year’s parliamentary election and into government as a junior coalition partner, has for years accused national broadcaster ORF of left-wing bias.
On Tuesday he went further, posting a picture on Facebook of leading ORF news presenter Armin Wolf with the inscription, “There is a place where lies become news. That place is ORF.” Wolf has threatened to sue Strache, saying it is the first time a politician has accused him of lying. ORF demanded an apology.
“Disparaging remarks or baselessly accusing a person of lying have no place in our public debate. It is not respectful and it calls into question the freedom of the press,” President Alexander Van der Bellen told the Kurier and Tiroler Tageszeitung newspapers.
Austria’s president usually serves a largely ceremonial role but as head of state he has the power to dismiss governments.
Although previous presidents have only rarely criticized politicians publicly, Van der Bellen, an environmentalist who beat an FPO candidate in a close-fought runoff in 2016, has said he will watch the new government closely.
A day after his Facebook posting, Strache said it was merely a Mardi Gras prank that was marked as such because it carried the one-word caption “Satire!“
But he twinned that defense with a renewed attack on ORF, saying that when the government reformed the broadcaster he would make sure it would have to report “objectively” and scrap the license fee that funds it.
“Simply labelling something as satire does not by any means make it satire,” Van der Bellen said. “Freedom of opinion and of the press as well as independent media are a basic requirement of a living, liberal democracy. Critically questioning politicians is part of that.”
Wolf is known for his muscular interviewing style and has grilled politicians of all shades.
It is the second time Van der Bellen has publicly criticized a member of the FPO since the coalition government led by conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took office in December.
Last month he called for the head of the FPO list of candidates in Lower Austria, the province that surrounds Vienna, to step down over his involvement in a right-wing student fraternity that once published a songbook with lyrics joking about the Holocaust. That call was heeded five days later.